From the end of last week academics at Universities all across the UK have gone on strike to protest at a proposed slash to their pensions. There are very many people who have studied this in a great deal more detail than I have and it is certainly a complicated story. A good place to start is the work of Mick Otsuka in setting out the problem in all its gory details. However to cut a long story short, the USS which is the pensions fund for lecturers is suggesting that they cut the level of pensions promised to lecturers based upon a risk assessment process which assumes that every single higher education establishment which signs up to the pension pot suddenly goes out of business simultaneously. Since this is clearly ridiculous, the only reasonable interpretation of their actions is that they are greedy and they are trying it on. I am one of those people cursed with the ability to see both sides of an argument. On this occasion, I can see no reason at all why the proposed changes are reasonable – it looks like a straight forward cooked up money grab so that those people who view universities simply in terms of the bottom line of a financial spreadsheet can make that number a little better.
Their proposed changes would drastically reduce the level of pensions paid to University lecturers upon their retirement, the University lecturers are not happy about this and so we are currently on strike.
When you go on strike, you don’t get paid of course. However in some sense the worse thing is the effect upon your students. This term I am teaching projects but I am not teaching actual courses, so it is a lot worse for my colleagues than it is for me because they have to decide whether or not they withdraw the teaching of actual courses, which effects many more students and cannot really be made up for.
So why do the lecturers feel motivated to strike given the adverse effect it will have upon their students?
If you undertake a career in academia, you have to put yourself through years of uncertainty. You have to do a PhD, and then you have to do multiple postdoctoral positions, (at each stage probably moving country in my field). At each stage, many people drop out of the process and only the most stubborn and lucky people (or occasionally, sometimes, the really gifted ones) make it to the place where they can get a permanent position. Their reward for dragging their family and their life around for more than five years? Well it certainly isn’t a huge salary. My PhD students who quit the field for finance or, more recently, big data regularly inform me that they are earning more than me within a year of their leaving academia.
Why then do academics remain academics? Well of course there are advantages to the lifestyle. I get to decide what research I do, I am in a sense my own boss. This sometimes has its own stresses associated with it – I have no inbox, I have to invent my own inbox and sometimes that makes me question whether I am putting myself under enough pressure. However on the whole, I am very lucky to be in that situation. In return I have to teach, which is not a bad thing. I don’t have to teach all the time and on average it is a pleasure to pass on the skills I have developed by doing research to younger people who are motivated by science. I like students a lot, on average they are amazing, intelligent people, spending time with young people is a pleasure (they have a lot of energy which is infectious) and I often see my younger self in them. Often much more than my younger self. What I teach them is what they need to know to become physicists and/or to solve problems, it is often not what they think they need to know and it is based upon my years of research experience. It is very different from what they would get from someone who was purely a teacher.
With the level of skills that I have developed over the years I could have done multiple things, most of which would have resulted in my salary being significantly larger than it is with me being in academia. However generally academics don’t worry about this too much because there are two things apart from the academic freedom I already mentioned which add to the equation when trying to decide whether to make this compromise or not – the pension and job security. Since I have been a permanent academic, I have come to realise that my job is not as secure as I thought it was – a few years ago the College closed down the school of physical sciences and engineering and opened a new school of natural and mathematical sciences in order to get rid of the engineering department. There was a “new” physics department and there was a job for me in it, but the stress that we all went through during that period was extreme and is something I will never forget.
Now they are trying to reduce our pensions, again, having already reduced them a couple of years ago and promising not to do anything with them for a long period of time. At some point, one has to ask oneself, why should academics come to work in the UK?
Of course anybody reading this who believes in the free market would say that I should vote with my feet and leave the country. There are indeed many postdoctoral researchers who would like a “permanent” position in the UK and lets face it, some of them are very good, and they are now cheaper than me, because I’ve been here for a while and I’ve been promoted. However, theoretical physicists, while often being quite naive in a frustrating head-in-the-clouds kind of way are not completely stupid. If the powers that be (Universities UK and University vice chancellors) continue to allow our job security and our pensions to be eroded, the equation will simply not add up in the UK, and people will eventually start to avoid the country. Already academics in the US or Switzerland earn a lot more than we do, even PhD students have started to choose those countries over us on purely financial reasons.
Disputes like the current one don’t motivate those of us trying to do our best to bring glory on our UK Universities to try harder and unless we fight for better packages for our future younger selves, the UK will slowly move towards being a second rate destination for researchers (and don’t get me going on Brexit)…